One of the biggest storylines for today’s games is Clemson traveling to No. 4 Notre Dame without quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Clemson’s Heisman hopeful is having to sit out tonight’s game due to COVID-19 protocol after testing positive for the virus on Oct. 28. Lawrence is better and is out of isolation and will be on the sidelines for top-ranked Clemson, but he will be in street clothes instead of wearing a football uniform.
That means for a second week in a row freshman D.J. Uiagalelei will get the start for Clemson. And though this will be his first road start, Uiagalelei is not the headline of this game.
The big story of the game is on the defensive side of the ball, where the Tigers (7-0, 6-0 ACC) will be without three starters on defense. Defensive tackle Tyler Davis (lower leg injury), middle linebacker James Skalski (groin) and strongside backer Mike Jones (hamstring) will not play at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.
“We can talk all day about Clemson’s injuries, and they are significant. Tyler Davis going out in the middle and he is probably a potential first rounder down the road in his career,” ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said on SportsCenter Saturday morning. “Skalski is like an extension of Brent Venables the defensive coordinator. So, you take that out of the middle and now you go up against the physicality of this offensive line.”
Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0 ACC) ranks second in the ACC, averaging 231.0 yards per game. Running back Kyren Williams is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and is ranked fifth in the ACC in rushing, averaging 100 yards per game.
“(Notre Dame’s offensive line), collectively as a unit, has 138 career starts. So, it is not just, ‘Hey they are really good.’ They have continuity. They are cohesive. They are able to communicate,” Herbstreit said. “And when you are playing against a Brent Venables defense that is showing you this and going to that is so important.
“So, the answer to your question is they have to be able to play their style which is their defense has to play well against all of that big play ability and then they just have to be their identity which is running the ball, play action pass. But much tougher to say.”
Who has the edge?
Travis Etienne vs. Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton: Clemson uses Etienne in every way that you can imagine. They really showed off his versatility against Boston College when he was lined out wide and was running double moves. However, Hamilton, who leads Notre Dame in tackles, might be college football’s answer to slowing Etienne down. He is a hybrid linebacker who can play both safety positions, can play down in the blocks and can cover the entire field sideline to sideline.
Clemson’s pass rush vs. Ian Book: In the 2018 Cotton Bowl, Clemson’s defense harassed Book in that game. The Tigers held Notre Dame to 88 rushing yards and put Book in third-and-long situations. That allowed Clemson to come after the quarterback and they had him running all evening long. The game plan will likely be the same tonight. Clemson is second in the country in sacks and with Myles Murphy, Brian Bresee, Justin Mascoll and K.J. Henry they have been getting after the quarterback all year. Defensive end Xavier Thomas will miss the first half due to a targeting call in the fourth quarter of the Tigers’ win over BC.
Uiagalelei vs. Notre Dame’s secondary: The Notre Dame secondary leads the ACC in passing defense, yielding just 173.5 yards a game, while holding opponents to a completion percentage of 52.8 percent, second to Clemson’s 46.8 in the ACC. However, the Irish have definitely been lucky in who they have faced. They’ve faced Louisville’s passing attack with 25-mile per hour winds swirling around the stadium and Pitt’s Kenny Pickett did not play against them. Now, they will not have to worry about Trevor Lawrence who shredded them two years ago. With Lawrence sidelined due to COVID protocols, the Tigers will turn to freshman D.J. Uiagalelei, who still might be the best quarterback the Irish have faced. However, with Hamilton and company, look for the Irish to try and confuse him and make him either hold on to the ball too long and allow the rush to get to him.
Bottom Line: This is going to look more like a playoff game than the matchup in 2018 was. The Irish like to run the ball and they do it as well as anyone. Clemson is beat up down the middle of its defense, where it will be missing defensive tackle Tyler Davis and linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones. On the other side of the ball, look for Hamilton to matchup with Travis Etienne and try to limit the Tigers’ talented running back. As Swinney said, this is going to a tough game for Clemson. In the end, the Tigers’ depth at the skill positions take over the game and prove to be the difference due to the Irish’s lack of skill talent on the outside.
Score prediction: Clemson 24, Notre Dame 20
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